People wearing protective face masks walk in a park, during the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bangkok, Thailand March 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

BANGKOK – Cities under lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus are making more room on their streets for pedestrians, fulfilling a long-standing demand by residents for more walkability, urban experts said on Monday.

With lockdowns or restrictions on movement in hundreds of cities, residents are often still allowed to occasionally go outside to run, walk or cycle, as long as they practice social distancing or keep two meters (6.5 ft) from each other.

While this has led to overcrowding in parks in several cities, authorities in Toronto, New York, and Philadelphia have barred traffic from some streets so more people can walk safely.

“Making cities more accessible to pedestrians now is necessary because people want to feel connected, get some exercise, and feel a little better about a very challenging situation,” said Tony Matthews, a lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia’s Griffith University. 

“Many people may not want to give their streets back to heavy traffic volumes after this. There will be a lot more advocacy for urban walkability,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The increased demand for walkability in urban areas might result in more permanent measures being taken to ensure that residents feel comfortable, safe and excited to spend more time walking. If this becomes a trend that sticks around once everyday life is restored, this could mean that urban areas may see a decrease in their carbon footprint!

Walking not only has physical and emotional benefits but walkability is also good for city economies and is key to social connectedness, research has shown.

While urban planners have long been working to increase walkability, the challenge has always been competing with the dominance of vehicle traffic, Matthews said. 

Reduced vehicle traffic in cities now has given authorities a chance to prioritize pedestrians, possibly for the first time in decades.

In Toronto and Vancouver, officials are looking into closing some parts of their streets to vehicles. In New York, some roads are closed to vehicle traffic to allow more room for pedestrians.

Developing Asian cities, with a few exceptions, are less walkable, with pedestrians often forced to share narrow, crumbling pavements with vendors, motorbikes, and stray dogs and cats.

But walkability is even more critical in these crowded cities, as there are few open spaces, said landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom in Bangkok.

“People want to get out and exercise, and it is important that there are accessible, healthy, welcoming spaces for them to do so,” she said.

We have prioritized cars for so long now, we forgot all about pedestrians. But that is beginning to change,” she said.

Bangkok began to open up some of its busiest streets to pedestrians last December. However, the move was targeted mainly at tourists. At the same time, Jakarta has expanded its car-free Sunday to more roads in the congested Indonesian capital.

The pandemic has made authorities realize the importance of healthy urban environments, said David Sagita, a public space specialist at United Cities and Local Governments, an umbrella organization of cities and regional authorities.

“Residents and authorities are seeing the need for cleaner, greener, healthier cities – which includes more open spaces and less traffic,” he said.

“This experience will change urban planning as we know it.”

—Reuters/UK Health